When Famous Stars Play Famous People: Who Killed It On-Screen And Who Was A Mess?
R&B singer Ne-Yo made headlines recently when he revealed that he turned down the chance to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he didn’t want to gain 30 pounds. He may have passed on a career defining opportunity, but after his role in Red Tails, maybe not…
In the acting world, getting the chance to play someone famous in a biopic is sure to take a career to the next level, and these days, everybody is doing it. Usher has already spoken out about the high expectations he has for his upcoming role as Sugar Ray Leonard. He wants an Oscar. He’d be following in the footsteps of fellow entertainers and actors who have stepped into the shoes of iconic public figures and created a path towards podiums in doing so.
Denzel was robbed of an Oscar for his portrayal of slain civil rights activist Malcolm X in 1993. Denzel assumed the identity of the complex man with ease and grace. He spoke the way Malcolm spoke. He carried himself the way Malcolm did and he made people feel as passionately about the Nation of Islam as the leader did with his nuanced performance. Denzel thoroughly inhabited the role of Malcolm through his cadence, posture and every inflection to the point where it felt he was no longer acting. He became Malcolm Little turned unconventional hero. Denzel may not have won the Oscar for the biopic, but the universal praise for his performance should be a fitting consolation.
In the arena of music, Beyoncé stands alone as an entertainer. She can sing, dance and put on quite a show. But there was a lot of back and forth about whether or not she could play blue’s legend Etta James in Cadillac Records. The reviews for her performance were mixed. You never forgot that Beyoncé was Beyoncé, even though she gave it a good try (definitely a better performance than her past ones). The essence of Etta was there in the scenes but it lingered as an afterthought.
The funnyman is always quick with a joke to make audiences laugh, but he showed his full range to entertain with his starring role as Ray Charles. Jamie got the inside track on what it was like to be Ray from the man himself. The legend assisted with the movie and helped Jamie with his performance, even though he passed before it was released. Jamie’s study of those lessons resulted in Oscar winning validation. He embodied the spirit and mannerism of a man who had no sight but whose visionary life inspired.
For all of the accolades that Angela Bassett has received in her enduring career, she remains very much underrated. That may seem like a contradiction but it’s the truth. She has tackled the lives of Betty Shabazz, Rosa Parks, Katherine Jackson and Voletta Wallace, but with no Oscar gold. Last but not least, Angela was simply the best as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Angela has played such a diverse group of characters, but each performance has stood alone and has never been the same. She makes it look so easy that it is easy to forget that it takes incredible skill.
All roles are not created equal and the role of abusive Ike Turner is not one that was going to make any actor look good to an audience. Tina Turner’s much maligned ex-husband was the villain for good reason and it would’ve been easy to portray him in that one note description. Laurence resisted the urge, opting instead for a more layered portrayal that helped to explain the madness behind the man. He played the role with vigor. You felt each slap he gave Tina and wanted to punch him back on her behalf. When an actor can make you feel that strongly, that is a gift and Laurence was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.
When it comes to Halle’s acting ability, there seems to be a division. There are those who believe she is capable. Others protest that she gets by on her beautiful looks and for what she’s willing to do on-screen. When she took on the role of Dorothy Dandridge, she silenced some of her critics. Halle infused her portrayal with a fragile side that has been a trademark of her own life. It was hard to tell where Halle ended and Dorothy began. It was a question that was answered with many awards for Halle, including a Golden Globe in 2000.
Will is one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. He knows how to deliver a line, and a funny one at that, but in the movie Ali, he had to be the greatest and throw punches. Will said it was a challenge bringing Muhammad Ali to the big screen. He gave it his best. The performance wasn’t a knockout blow but was on the receiving end of an Oscar nomination. For his next biopic, Will has his sights set on playing President Obama.
Jennifer was still new on the scene when she brought the tragic life and death of Selena to the movie theaters. Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a beloved Tejano star on the brink of crossing over into the mainstream when she was gunned down at 23. Her untimely passing provided the platform Jennifer needed to make a name for herself with her vibrant characterization of the fallen musician.
Morgan Freeman is an actor that long ago proved the depth of his talents, but he reminded audiences just how formidable he was with his turn as Nelson Mandela. In 2009, Morgan transformed himself into the former South African president in Invictus. He has been “God,” and Joe Clark, but there was a new poignancy to his adaptation of a man whose life and legacy is known the world over.
Stephanie Guerilus is a multimedia journalist and author. Follow her @qsteph
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